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Seven players told to turn in their uniforms

With less than a week left in spring training, the Devil Rays began cutting down their minor-league rosters by releasing seven players Saturday morning and reassigning five others.

The biggest name among the players let go probably was Marc Niethammer, the slugging first baseman who batted .208 with eight home runs in 67 games at Hudson Valley last season.

"I can't believe they would do this to me," Niethammer said. "But this ain't my first rodeo. I'll make some calls and I'll be with somebody."

The signing of Cuban 1B Roberto Colina to play at Class A St. Petersburg was likely to limit Niethammer's playing time.

Also released were RHPs Jeff Shinar and Mark Thompson, Cs Shawn Hughes and Mike Raymondi, INF Tony McCladdie and OF Edgardo Larregui. All were free-agent signees except for McCladdie, who was the Rays' 64th-round draft pick in 1996.

INF Jamie Ebling, a product of Florida Southern, voluntarily retired. He had been reassigned from the St. Petersburg roster to Charleston. OF Manny Vazquez was promoted to the St. Petersburg roster.

Four players will join the extended spring training group, composed mainly of those who will play on the short-season teams this summer. RHP Rick White and OF Jim Buccheri are rehabilitating injuries and need the extra time. RHP Robin Cope and C Mike McGehee were reassigned.

"We just had to start putting things together," farm director Tom Foley said. "There still have to be some other decisions made."

There are 31 players on the St. Petersburg roster and 40 with Charleston. Both teams have to be cut to about 25.

THANKS ANYWAY: While disappointed to be released, Shinar could not have been more thankful for the opportunity. He was the pitching coach at Cal Poly-Pomona when the Rays signed him, and he plans to return to his job with a better understanding of pitching. "This was a great learning situation," Shinar said. "I soaked in as much as I could and tried to learn the game from the pro perspective. I was really honored to have this chance."

TOUGH WORK: Saturday also was difficult for Foley, who, for the first time in his new job, had to break the news to the released players. Having been released twice as a player by Montreal helped. "Having been on the other side of it, you know how hard it is," Foley said.

GAME RECAP: 3B Scott Romano had a home run and two doubles to lead St. Petersburg past a Phillies squad 16-3. Colina also homered and OF Ray Suplee was 2-for-3. LHP John Kaufman allowed six hits and two runs over four innings.

Charleston beat the Blue Jays 13-5 in Dunedin. LHP Trent Brown pitched two scoreless innings of relief, striking out three, and LHP Trevor Enders also pitched two scoreless innings, striking out five. C Miguel Suriel was 3-for-4 with three RBI and INF Brian Becker was 2-for-3.

UPCOMING: Today's starters are RHP Pablo Ortega for Charleston and RHP Travis Cain for St. Petersburg; Monday's are RHP Matt White for Charleston and LHP James Manias for St. Petersburg; Tuesday's are LHP Bobby Seay for Charleston and RHP Denis Pujals for St. Petersburg.

Did you know?

Joel Hinojosa doesn't have Matt White's fastball or Bobby Seay's curveball or Rick White's major-league experience, but he may be unique. The Rays pitcher throws sidearm _ exclusively. "My dad played baseball and that was the way he threw and that was the way he taught me," Hinojosa said. "That was pretty much how I learned how to throw."